You’ll have to be really honest with yourself about this one.
Over my short career, I’ve had several patients who were self-diagnosed as autistic or with having Asperger’s Syndrome. They would make rude comments and then excuse them with the diagnosis. So, as you can imagine, most people felt guilty for expressing their resentment. According to the DSM-5, in order to be diagnosed with autism, a patient must present persistent deficits in communication across several contexts; have restricted, repetitive patterns of activities, interests, or behavior; and present with their symptoms at an early age. When you observe the detailed criteria and want to find a reason for your selfishness and rudeness, it’s easy to consider yourself to be autistic and provide yourself with a story that absolves you of any normative responsibility. So, how can we distinguish between Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD (and its counterpart, Borderline Personality Disorder), from Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Initially, I gave those clients the benefit of the doubt and accepted their self-descriptions. But, over time, as I got to know them, I caught a peek into the maliciousness of their self-absorption. The individual with autism doesn’t understand that she’s harming someone, whereas the narcissist doesn’t care and, at worst, aims to do so. If they wish to bring you down to their level and make you feel inferior, they’ll nit-pick and expose your flaws. For them, doing so makes one more malleable and grateful. Sometimes, they’ll put you down just to feel superior if they’re feeling low, but at others, they’ll do it to assert their dominance. An autistic person, on the contrary, is just hyperfocused on herself and her interests; she doesn’t utilize conversations to feel superior and powerful (perhaps by bragging). The distinction here is between the person who’s often rude and the one who’s often, or at least occasionally, nice. Narcissists are frequently charming until they have you. Then, they flip a switch and find fault with most of what you do. The rudeness of autism, however, is fairly stable and isn’t founded on manipulative intent.
Additionally, narcissists use guilt and punishment to make others feel indebted. Around one, you’ll always feel like you should be doing more. You’ll feel unempathetic, uncaring, and generally not good enough. When you succeed, he’ll make you feel guilty for your success (or simply minimize it), as opposed to someone with autism, who likely won’t acknowledge it. Narcissists tend to feel that others’ achievements are solely due to luck and conceive of themselves as the sole victims of circumstance. They’ll say things like, “If I had it as well as you did, I’d be as successful, too.” And, narcissists blame others for their misery, sensing an inherent unfairness to their lots. Thus, their lack of empathy is more conscious: they choose to fail to consider a world that they believe refuses to consider them. The difference between autism and narcissism, as noted in the article linked below, is that one implies a high degree of non-sensitivity, whereas the other implies one of insensitivity; the former doesn’t know and the latter doesn’t care. The narcissist displays patterns of indifference and cruelty, whereas the autistic individual may feel remorse for some social blunder.
Finally, narcissists require and love external validation (both praise and sympathy). They’ll talk over you; they’ll re-direct a conversation about your sorrows to theirs, noting how they’ve had it worse; and they’ll one-up your accomplishments to improve their reputation at your expense. Whatever you’re going through isn’t an excuse to garner the attention they’re entitled to. Remember, they’re insensitive and won’t give a shit about your struggles.
Unfortunately, it takes time to get to know a person in order to distinguish between the two disorders. I want to be clear in stating that both are in some form diseases of the brain as well as psychosocial ones. Some narcissists prefer to be labeled autistic because it gives them an excuse for their behavior, therefore reducing the likelihood of blame. Others refuse to accept the NPD label, as it implies a moral failing and, therefore, imperfection. But, both are significant psycho/neurological disorders. I wrote this article not to perpetuate the stigma of NPD, but to help others understand it in order to decide for themselves if they wish to continue to associate with those with it. Narcissists are badly traumatized and need help. But enabling their behavior by feeding into their poorly-ascribed labels is a bad way to provide it.